Searching for Democracy

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

This article was published in The Nation on December 18 2011


One reads a lot about the democratic deficit in Sri Lanka. Sri Lankan, as well as western commentators, bemoan the weakness of the Sri Lankan opposition and the gathering of power to the executive through the 18th amendment and the use of urgent bills. We read about the inspiring hunger for democracy in nations like Libya, Egypt and Syria, where people are prepared to die (and kill) for democracy.


I thought it might be instructive to see how that democracy thing is working out in some of those countries that have had it for a long time.
First, let us attempt an analysis of the concept itself. According to Raymond Williams in Keywords, democracy is an old word, but its meanings have always been complex. The word first entered the English language in the 16th century, as a translation from the Greek demos – people, and kratos – rule. Of course, it all depends on what you mean by “people” and what you mean by “rule”.
Aristotle wrote that “a democracy is a state where the freemen and the poor, being in the majority, are invested with the power of the state”. What does “power of the state” actually mean? Socrates, according to Plato, said, “democracy comes into being after the poor have conquered their opponents, slaughtering some and banishing some, while to the remainder they give an equal share of freedom and power”.


Popular power


Aristotle’s disciple, St Thomas Aquinas, did not see democracy as a good thing. He defined democracy as popular power, where the ordinary people, by force of numbers oppressed the rich. Democracy was a form of tyranny. In my schoolboy study of American history, I noted the fear in the early days of independence of the canaille (pack of dogs), the mob.
According to Raymond Williams, the most striking historical fact about the word democracy is that it was, until the 19th century, generally a highly derogatory term and it has only been since the early 20th century that most western political parties have felt the need to pay lip service to it.


The first constitution to use the word democracy was that of Rhode Island in 1641. What democracy meant in that document was that the people, in “orderly assembly” made the laws and ministers “faithfully executed” them. Alexander Hamilton, in 1777, saw this as recipe for anarchy. He favoured representative democracy “where the right of election is well secured and regulated, and the exercise of the legislative executive and judicial authorities is vested in select persons”.
Representative tyranny.


Today, Hamilton’s concept is all we are left with. Anyone who argues for the original idea of direct democracy might be seen as a dangerous radical. So, the voter opts for a particular candidate and in doing so leaves that candidate to make his or her own decisions. A majority of voters might be in favour of capital punishment but that counts as nothing against the opinion of the elected representative. A majority might be against the invasion of Iraq, but in a representative democracy, their views have no standing. In a further twist, the views of the elected representatives do not count when balanced against the views of the Cabinet. The views of the Cabinet do not count against the views of the prime minister. In guarding against the tyranny of the mob, representative democracy gives tyrannical powers to one man who gets his way by lying.


Representative democracy, in effect, gives little power to the voter. The voter makes a choice on the basis of the party manifesto, the personality and record of a particular candidate. The only control over the candidate’s performance is to vote for someone else at the next election, which maybe five years away. The candidate/representative may break every promise in the manifesto and may even change party but still stay in parliament without consulting the voters.


John Stuart Mill ran for the British parliament in 1865. His campaign was very unlike a modern one. He refused to spend any money. When a raucous working class crowd asked him whether he had written that the working class were habitually liars, he had no hesitation in saying “yes”. The audience cheered and one of their numbers stood up to announce that the workers needed friends not flatterers.

Government of the people by the people


One definition of democracy is “government of the people by the people”. What do we mean by “people”? Throughout history, suffrage has been limited to certain groups – freemen, whites, property-owners, the educated, the mature in years. It may not be generally realised that Switzerland, often thought of as an ancient democracy (more of that in a later article) did not grant the vote to women in all elections until 1991. Women got the vote in Ceylon in 1931.


“Democracy” is often seen as synonymous with liberal democracy, which is expected to include elements such as political pluralism and equality before the law. Majority rule is often listed as a characteristic of democracy, but it is possible for a party or candidate to rule with a numerical minority of votes. See Bush v Gore.


Economists have found fault with democracy in general because voters are uninformed about many issues, especially relating to economics. Democracy is criticised for not offering enough political stability or continuity. Pareto argued that democracy masked the reality that elite oligarchy is the unbendable law of human society, and that democratic institutions would do no more than shift the exercise of power from oppression to manipulation.

Corporate interest


Pareto’s view is borne out by what we see in the world today. JS Mill would get nowhere. In the USA, no candidate can get elected without huge funding. This allows corporate interests to call the shots. The Supreme Court has ruled that corporations have the human rights of ‘persons’ when it comes to campaign contributions.


Classical liberal theory sees capitalism and democracy as independent systems with disparate goals. Democracy restricts economic processes only to protect basic rights and does not limit wealth. Capitalism creates a large, wage-dependent class lacking the political power of the wealthy. Unrestricted global capitalism has created multi-national, non-democratic bodies with the impunity to override the environmental or labour laws passed by sovereign legislatures.
The EU has accrued many powers that allow it to override the wishes of voters in previously sovereign nations. The crisis of global capitalism has not brought punishment on the perpetrators, who have been bailed out and given new power. Austerity measures and failed neo-liberal policies of privatisation, reduction in public services and deregulation are being forced on individual governments by the troika of the EU, the ECB and the IMF.


Look at Greece, often thought of as the birthplace of democracy. George Papandreou sought the views of his demos with a referendum and brought on his head the fury of Merkel and Sarkozy who had exacerbated the crisis. Papandreou was replaced by Lucas Papademos, a former vice-president of the European Central Bank, who promptly installed in the government a far-right group banned since the military government lost power in 1974.


In Italy, the ludicrous (but elected) Berlusconi was replaced by ex-Goldman Sachs executive Mario Monti. The decision was made by the Italian president without consulting the voters. The next election is in 2013. In Ireland, the voters did get the chance to throw out the corrupt scoundrels who got the nation in a mess, but now the Irish economy is being supervised by 15 unelected officials from Brussels, and even the (elected) cabinet is kept in the dark.
Is this version of democracy any better than the Sri Lankan one?


Commentators assert that drug barons, rapists and murderers populate the Sri Lankan parliament. It seems that the very banksters who toppled their economies now rule European democracies.